Deadknobs and Broomsticks: The Witch Grave of Yazoo City

September 13, 2014 — Can you get more Halloween than a witch’s grave? I’m going to say no, that you can only get equally as Halloween as a witch’s grave. I’ve been to more than my share of them and have heard tales of tons more. To the stone, their lore is based on some willfully misinterpreted phrase or image or weathering on the grave of some poor soul who definitely did not kiss Satan’s cloven rear. A couple of months back, though, I came across a witch grave that seems to be unique among witch graves. It’s in Yazoo City, Mississippi. That’s right. Mississippi. This witch is a swamp crone.

We pulled into Glenwood Cemetery early in the morning, soon after it opened. The only other undeads in the place were a couple of groundskeepers making life neat above all that messy death below. The cemetery was sizeable and well-maintained. In fact, it felt relatively new for a graveyard that’s been receiving the Mississippi dead since the mid-1800s.

I hadn’t done a ton of research into exactly where the witch grave was among those fields of stones, but I didn’t have to. The grave of the Witch of Yazoo is extremely well-marked. Twice over.

Driving the cemetery paths at random, we quickly came upon a green street sign, the kind that should say Elm St. or Pleasant Ln. This one said, “Witches Grave,” which is grammatically problematic in a couple of ways, but does its job to pull you in.

We followed the angle of the sign about two dozen steps deep into the section, where we found a square plot eight to ten feet on a side outlined with rusty chains made up of long links, all of which were lying in the grass, like they had been torn down.

According to the stone in the center of that square, they had been. And that’s another unique feature of this witch grave—the legend is inscribed right on it.

That stone itself had fallen from its base and was broken into three pieces. But it had been jigsawed together on the ground so that what was inscribed on it was clearly readable:

ON MAY 25, 1904. THE WITCH 

JAN. 7, 1974 TO JULY 1, 1995 

That’s right. Not only is the witch grave of Yazoo City a spook site, it’s also a literary one. Willie Morris grew up in Yazoo City and wrote mostly about life in the Mississippi Delta. He introduced the world to the Witch of Yazoo in his 1971 book Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood and then continued in its 1989 sequel Good Old Boy and the Witch of Yazoo, neither of which are really about the witch herself, but about a bunch of kids living La Vida Delta. The first book was made into a movie in 1988 called The River Pirates.

In the first book, the Witch of Yazoo was just a small passage used as an example of the strange stories that make up the deep, mysterious bayou milieu that these southern-fried Goonies tramp through. I think. I haven't read it, not yet, but as far as I can ascertain that's as far as it went. But if so, it's plenty.

According to the story, the witch lived by herself (unless you count the dozens of half-starved cats and the skeletons dangling from the rafters) on the banks of the Yazoo River, where she would “lure fisherman into her house, poison them with arsenic, and bury them on a densely wooded hill nearby.” In 1884, she was finally caught red-handed, literally so, with two bodies on the floor of her cabin over which she was dancin’ and incantin’.

They chased the crone, who was described as "half ghost and half scarecrow, but all witch," into the swamp, where she got caught in quicksand and drowned, but not before she yelled out a curse that she would escape her grave and burn the town down.

In 1904, 20 years after the curse, the town of Yazoo City did actually burn, with more than 300 buildings bonfired into charcoal. When the residents went to the graveyard afterward, they discovered that the chains surrounding the grave of the witch had been broken.

The stone with the story on it was put there sometime in the 1990s, and it broke not too long after (there are plenty of picture online of it upright. Here’s one with Willie Morris himself behind it). It’s like these guys didn’t get the first message. This witch breaks stuff.

Anyway, the grave of the Witch of Yazoo is remarkable for being well-marked, literary, and for one other reason: Her press agent is buried two plots away from her.

Just like Washington Irving is buried mere sections away from where his Headless Horseman rose on its nightly head-shopping and chopping, so too is the Witch of Yazoo neighbor in death to her literary benefactor. Willie Morris died in 1999, and his gravestone is a tall, dark, triangular gravestone, at the bottom of which is a plaque with a sentimental quote from him that’s a million times less interesting than his phrase, “half ghost and half scarecrow, but all witch”:

“Even across the divide of death, friendship remains an echo forever in the heart.”

There’s a lot of things one can accomplish in life worth being proud of, but, to me, making a witch famous is up there. Especially around Halloween.

UPDATE: Nice coda to this post. I’d purchased Good Old Boy and the Witch of Yazoo weeks ago to read at some point. The book’s out of print, so I picked it up secondhand online. Figured since I posted this in the morning and was going to be in the car on a road trip the rest of the day, today would be a good time to start it. When I opened it, I found inside newspaper clippings of the author's 1999 obituary and two 2001 reviews of his posthumously released novel Taps. Glad I didn’t buy the ebook.

So thanks, ISM. You personalized your copy of the book before Internet privacy issues, so I’ll leave your name out of it.